Paul Andersen: Lost (and found) in the Great Mystery
Rain beat down from a pitch-black sky as the Aspen search-and-rescue team headed up the timbered trail, their head lamps weaving silver beams through the forest.
An Army veteran, Brian, was the object of their search. On the final hike down from Margy’s Hut on our last Huts For Vets program of the summer, he took a wrong turn and ended up at 11,600 feet in the most remote location possible in the 80,000-acre Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness.
Brian was lost, but we knew his exact location thanks to his cellphone. He called us after going missing five hours. Search coordinator Scott Messina had Brian’s coordinates and instructed him to stay put.
As a black storm cloud moved in, Brian nestled under the sheltering boughs of a spruce tree and endured. That’s not an easy feat when you suffer from anxiety, a result of years of military service in combat roles.
After his rescue early the next morning, I suggested that it was the Great Spirit — Wakan Tanka — that had lured Brian into an unintended solo. This notion came from one of the readings in the Huts For Vets syllabus, a notebook of readings that spur conversations and offer context for the wilderness.
“We were surrounded by the blessings of the Great Mystery,” wrote Chief Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Sioux, “a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things.” With every step he took on that wrong trail, Brian immersed himself in this sense of wonder and awe.
In our group discussion on Luther Standing Bear, with Brian and his fellow veterans, we had acknowledged that mystery is being lost to the static of technology. In the wilderness that night, Brian may have been lost, but he found himself in that Mystery.
Another reading in our notebooks prepared Brian to overcome his anxiety. Survival expert and nature philosopher Tom Brown emphasizes the critical importance of attitude in coping with life-threatening challenges in nature.
“What is it that makes a person decide to live rather than to give up and die?” Brown asks. “Often, it is the ability to accept the present situation and to deal with each moment as it comes.”
In a debrief the morning of his rescue, Brian said that he reflected on Brown’s advice and took things a moment at a time rather than face the overwhelming fear that could trigger his anxiety. He told himself to relax and trust.
This same veteran had been deeply touched by a reading and discussion the day before on Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” an inspiring account of Frankl’s survival in Auschwitz.
“Any man can decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually,” Frankl wrote. “It is this spiritual freedom that cannot be taken away, and that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
“If Frankl could survive Auschwitz,” Brian said, “then I can survive, too.”
This Huts For Vets trip had launched three days earlier with an invocation by Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it has to teach; and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.”
Brian discovered during those lonely hours in the wild that he is very much alive. When the head lamps of his rescuers probed the darkness toward him, Brian was both saved and enlightened. As one participant suggested after Brian’s rescue, “All who wander are not lost.”
“It was a bit nerve racking,” Brian emailed the day after, “but it gave me lots of time to reflect on the readings. It provided me with comfort, peace of mind, a calmness that I have not had in a long time, and deep reflective thoughts. It was a challenge to remain still for that length of time, but it was also a time to listen to the sounds of the wilderness at night.
“I believe it is a highlight of my adventurous life that will not be forgotten. I’m happy to be back in my apartment, but miss the stillness of nature.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com .